The Empty Secular “Sense of Awe”

Let me introduce you to a fictional boy named Johnny.

Johnny grew up in a very typical, middle-class family with loving parents and a good education. His family was nominally Christian – meaning that Johnny grew up going to Sunday school and learning to recite prayers before dinner and bedtime. Aside from that, his parents seldom discussed religion. Johnny enjoyed the social aspect of going to church and the sense of community that it brought, but could never really understand those odd “fundamentalist” types who took the Bible so seriously.

When he went off to college, Johnny’s tentatively-held identity as a “Christian” melted away after just a few weeks of classes. He began identifying as “spiritual, but not religious”. He spent his sophomore year as an agnostic and his junior year as “sort of a Buddhist”, before finally succumbing to the inevitability of atheism and secular humanism.

Although confident in the logical framework for his beliefs, Johnny nonetheless found himself yearning for the community and the sense of purpose he remembered seeing during his churchgoing days. So he set about looking for a substitute for religion – a way to appreciate the beauty and mystery of life without all that outdated “religious baggage”.

This substitute is what I refer to as a “sense of awe”, which seeks to replace religious beliefs with a generic feeling of wonder, mystery, and humble respect for our place in the universe. To illustrate this, I’ve included below a couple of short videos. You might recognize them, as they’ve both made the social media rounds. They’re actually very similar.

The first is a poetic monologue from Carl Sagan, in which he cleverly inserts his naturalist worldview and criticizes “the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe”. Sagan paints a rather bleak portrait of humanity’s place in the cosmos, yet his soothing voice – assisted by some soft background music – helps to establish the desired sense of awe and beauty.

The second video is from Neil deGrasse Tyson, who champions a similar brand of humanism. His tone is soft – almost spiritual – and the background music aims straight for the heartstrings. “The universe is in us,” you see. Sadly, atheists who crave a sense of wonder and “connectedness” eat this stuff up.

I do think Tyson hit on something important in the video, when he said, “That’s really what you want in life; you want to feel connected; you want to feel relevant.” This innate human desire for a sense of meaning is exactly what fuels the popularity of this “awe-oriented” outlook among many of the non-religious. They are seeking to regain a sense of relevance in a universe devoid of true, objective meaning.

The truth is that humans were created for a specific role – to bring glory to God. It’s tragic, then, to witness people like Johnny basking in the wonder of Creation while willfully refusing to acknowledge or credit his Creator.